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Erin Andrews’s civil trial reveals the ugly reality of how we treat victims of sex crimes

Sportscaster and TV personality Erin Andrews, left, leaves the courtroom on March 2, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sportscaster and TV personality Erin Andrews, left, leaves the courtroom on March 2, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Over the past week, a certain courtroom in Nashville, Tennessee, has become a maelstrom of ugliness and embarrassment. At the heart of that maelstrom is a nude tape of journalist and sportscaster Erin Andrews, filmed by a stalker without her knowledge and posted online against her will. Andrews is suing the stalker and other involved parties in civil court, for a total of $75 million in damages.

Update: Andrews was awarded $55 million on Monday.

At the most basic level, the case is about a sex crime and the gross invasion of a woman's privacy. But there's more to it than that. As the trial continues, testimonies are revealing alarming, painful details about the incident that paint an appalling portrait of how it has changed Andrews's life.

Since the tape appeared on the internet, Andrews has frequently been told that it was good for her career. She's had to battle an ongoing media narrative suggesting that she leaked the footage herself as a publicity stunt. And as Andrews revealed on the witness stand, she was at one point barred from doing her job as a sports reporter until she participated in a televised interview about what had happened.

So this trial isn't merely about justice for Andrews — it's also about victims of abuse, particularly women, and how they are too often shamed, objectified, and punished for crimes committed against them.

What happened to Erin Andrews?

Andrews is a journalist who is perhaps best known for her tenure at ESPN. She was employed by the network for eight years (from 2004 to 2012), eventually becoming the sideline reporter for premier college football and basketball games.

In 2008, while Andrews was in Nashville covering a Vanderbilt football game, a man named Michael David Barrett altered the peephole of her Marriott hotel room and filmed her undressing. The videos and images made their way to the internet, where they have been viewed, according to an expert who testified at the trial, nearly 17 million times since being made public in 2009.

In December 2009, Barrett pleaded guilty to interstate stalking (prosecutors said he stalked Andrews to at least three cities and had multiple videos) and was sentenced to 27 months in prison, the maximum possible sentence, according to US District Judge Manuel Real.

"Thirty months isn't enough," Andrews said at the sentencing. "You violated me, and you violated all women. You are a sexual predator, a sexual deviant, and they should lock you up."

Andrews's civil trial against Barrett, the Marriott hotel’s management, and Windsor Capital Group, the company that operates the hotel, began on February 29; she is suing for $75 million.

ESPN forced Andrews to talk about her abuse

In the trial, Andrews aims to show the damage the incident has caused in her life, while Barrett, the Vanderbilt Marriott hotel management, and Windsor Capital aim to show that no harm has been done. The very nature of the trial means that gory, maddening stuff might be dredged up.

Andrews alleges that Barrett asked someone at the hotel which room she was staying in, and that the information was given freely. He then booked the room next to hers, and she was never made aware that someone would make a request like this.

As part of her testimony, Andrews has reminded the court that the tape of her undressing was initially thought by many to be a publicity stunt — that she knowingly allowed it to be filmed and posted online as a means of furthering her career.

"Probably for, like, three months, everybody thought it was a publicity stunt," Andrews said in court, holding back tears. "The front page of the New York Post said ‘ESPN Scandal.’ To Fox News and CBS, everybody put up that I was doing it for publicity and attention, and that ripped me apart."

It might be difficult to recall the specifics of 2009, but at the time the framing of this sex crime as a publicity stunt was so pertinent that ESPN, according to Andrews's testimony, didn't allow her on the air until she addressed the tape in an on-camera interview. At the time, Barrett hadn't been arrested yet, and that led some people to conclude that posting the tape may have been a stunt.

"Because there wasn’t an arrest, because we didn’t know where this happened, my bosses at ESPN told me, ‘Before you go back on-air for college football, we need you to give us a sit-down interview," Andrews testified, explaining that she chose Oprah as the person to interview her because Oprah had talked about being a victim of sex abuse. "That was the only way I was going to be allowed back on the air."

To be clear, ESPN's behavior goes against the industry standard when telling stories of sexual abuse, which is to not name victims and to grant them anonymity.

"I certainly think it sends the wrong message about employers and how they can support victims of crime," Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, told the Tennessean. "I think the message is that we don’t believe you. And when a victim of crime is forced to talk to the media against their will, it re-traumatizes them."

Josh Krulewitz, vice president of communications for ESPN, said in a statement to the Tennessean that ESPN has been supportive of Andrews.

"Developments in the case have been interpreted by some to mean that ESPN was unsupportive of Erin in the aftermath of her ordeal," Krulewitz said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We have been and continue to be supportive of Erin."

To some people, Erin Andrews didn't act like a "good" victim

During the trial, Marc Dedman — one of the defense attorneys for Barrett, Marriott, and Windsor — implied that Andrews has been successful in spite of, and perhaps because of, the tape. Stacey Barchenger, a reporter for the Tennessean, live-tweeted Dedman's statements from the courtroom:

No doubt, this is pretty heinous: The defense attorney is making an argument that a man who's been convicted of interstate stalking and committing a sex crime against Andrews actually helped her career. But it's part of his job to mitigate the damage against his clients.

What's more inexplicable is the way the public reacted to the tape.

In the months and even years that followed the release of the tape, people debated about how Andrews should act. It all gets at this idea of a "good victim," of some predetermined, approved way a victim should behave in the wake of a crime.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a conservative pundit and former co-host of The View, famously shamed Andrews for competing on Dancing With the Stars in 2010 and wearing revealing costumes. Hasselbeck callously implied that Barrett could have just waited to see Andrews on the show and saved himself some jail time:

Hasselbeck wasn't the only person who felt like Andrews's appearance on Dancing With the Stars wasn't proper victim behavior — you can hear cheers and laughs from the audience of The View as Hasselbeck makes her case.

Andrews isn't the only woman to face this kind of victim shaming. The NFL and CBS pulled a song by Rihanna and Jay Z during the opening-week broadcast in 2014 because the football organization was, at the time, figuring out how to deal with the domestic abuse charges against Ray Rice, then a Baltimore Ravens player. Rihanna herself was a victim of domestic abuse, and the NFL didn't want to draw further attention to itself by playing her song.

"Nobody even wants to admit it," Rihanna told Vanity Fair. "I have to be punished for it? It didn’t sit well with me."

And during the infamous celebrity cellphone hacking scandal of 2014, people used the hashtag #IfMyPhoneWereHacked to smugly point out how they, unlike the female celebrities whose private images were exposed, didn't have any risqué photos on their phones.

ESPN, according to Andrews's testimony, acted in the same way when it made her participate in a national interview because no one had been arrested yet for filming and posting the tape. Even more maddening is the notion that Andrews's job as a sideline reporter — a role that has often been held by attractive women (see: the internet's many articles about the "hottest" sideline reporters) — was part of the reason this happened to her.

"I did nothing wrong. Just trying to live my life," Andrews said at Barrett's sentencing in 2010. "I had to deal with a lot of people who said I deserved it, that I had played to a certain audience."

Andrews's testimony was powerful, and might make a difference in her case

It's unclear what kind of compensation Andrews will get for her suffering, or if she'll even win this trial. Sports Illustrated's legal expert believes her powerful and emotional testimony will have an impact on the jury that will work in her favor.

But this very public case reflects something bigger than Andrews. It illustrates, sometimes not even intentionally, the way American culture treats victims of sex abuse and, more broadly, how it values women.

From calling the crime a publicity stunt to weighing whether she should be on television again, many people both on and off camera — even her bosses — appointed themselves critics of Andrews's actions. They weighed and measured how she should act, forgetting that she owes them nothing.

Andrews should be able to live her life the way she chooses. After the abuse she endured, Andrews should have been allowed that much. She wasn't even allowed to do her job again.

Andrews, and other survivors like her, shouldn't have to apologize for being a victim.

Ultimately, there will be some kind of concrete, tangible decision about whether Andrews's life was negatively affected in such a way that the court believes she is owed damages. But just by existing, by all of this ugliness coming out of it, the case is serving as a reflection of how we treat victims of abuse. And possibly, hopefully, we can learn from it.